Azerbaijan has drawn special attention from regional and international powers ever since oil was discovered there in the nineteenth century. One of the reasons Hitler diverted part of his forces from his march on Moscow during World War Two, for example, was to take Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, because he needed its natural resources to fuel his military machine.

Now Azerbaijan, always in the centre of machinations around Iran, Russia and Turkey, is again emerging as central player. This time, as an independent state, it is not just a plaything of external powers but has some autonomy to determine its own course.

Azerbaijan and Iran. Azerbaijan is a Shi’a country but its relations with Iran are predominantly one of ethnic tension. Iranian intelligence agencies infiltrate Baku seeking to overthrow the government and murdering critics of the Tehran regime. High-ranking officials in Iran have been known to threaten dire consequences upon the Azerbaijani president, should he fail to mend his ways. A gradual rapprochement has been taking place between Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia, based upon common interests about energy and counter-terrorism. However, this is unlikely to extend to Azerbaijan’s becoming formally a member of the Islamic Military Alliance recently formed by Saudi Arabia.

Azerbaijan and Turkey. These two countries have always been very close. The national languages are 95% mutually comprehensible. They sometimes refer to themselves as « one nation, two states ». For nearly two decades they have cooperated in natural gas production (Azerbaijan) and consumption (Turkey), and this cooperation will now include gas transit (to Europe). Turkey, in the wake of Russian sanctions and trade embargoes against it, is now signing new commercial agreements with Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan and Russia. Moscow has targeted Baku geopolitically since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and continuing occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not target only Georgia. Tbilisi had always since 1991 made common cause with Baku against Moscow’s influence in the region, and Azerbaijan has supplied 100 per cent of Georgia’s gas imports for over a decade. Now Georgia is rethinking this and looking to Moscow for at least some imports. Russia’s influence in Armenia is already ineradicable with the presence of military bases and monopoly over arms sales. Above all, it is through the « frozen conflict » in Nagorno-Karabakh, an integral part of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian forces, Moscow threatens Baku. There is a method to all this seeming madness. As people in the region say, « Georgia is the tool, Armenia is the way, and Azerbaijan is the prize. »

Perhaps Canada’s new leadership will find a « middle-power » way to address the regional situation, beyond the question of military mission, by enhancing the autonomy and security of Azerbaijan, which is a key geopolitical (and with its energy resource, also geo-economic) linchpin for stability, and as such also a model for social development for the Muslim world.

Robert M. Cutler
Robert M. Cutler is Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He was for many years a senior researcher at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University.

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